An aura of friendliness at M.V. Museum


There is something about museums which can be a tad foreboding. The very word “museum” makes you yawn and think of excuses to stay home and watch a ball game. Unless you are an art critic or a paleontologist, few people prefer museum hopping to club hopping. To many of us as children, they seemed stiff and ominous, with dark niches, heavy curtains’ and “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. Standing behind the velvet rope diminishes one’s sense of self. Evidently, the museum doesn’t trust you; precious artifacts are to be seen and not touched. “Oh, careful, don’t touch that Staffordshire teacup, somebody wealthy may have sipped from it once.”

Last Tuesday, when I told the intellectual writer-residents at Renaissance House that we were going to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum instead of a contradance, they were polite but clearly pouty.

Once they arrived, their pursed pouts slowly changed to sweet smiles, and a happier bunch of writers I’ve never seen.

Seldom in my life have I been so overwhelmed with the joy and relief of seeing how pleased they were by this lovely place. It took a crowbar to get them out.

I am SO proud of the staff and whoever established that aura of friendliness. It is one thing to have an important museum with important pieces in it, it is another thing to have a museum which does not have one iota of elitism, not a hint of stuffy exclusivity.

Sun rays stream through magnificent windows, framing the natural seascapes and landscapes outside. Sunshine rests on the multiple exhibits in a kind and generous way which makes you want to read and listen and participate.

An inclusive museum is what the world needs, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum gives it to us.

Ernestine Rose at 85 is still a waitress at the Big Dipper, a coffee shop in Oak Bluffs. She gets up at 4 am to make pastries, then pours coffee until 9 am. A posse of Vineyarders go from Monday to Wednesday, just because she is there. She is serious Vineyard People.

Well, I see her at the museum with an earpiece in her hand listening to some old sea captain. “Ernestine, what are you doing here?”

“That’s my husband,” she says, pointing to his photo. “I’m listening to a recording of him.”

“Ernestine, that’s what he looked like?”

“Yes, we were married for 65 years. OK, I have to go now. He’s still talking. How do you turn this thing off? He won’t stop talking, isn’t there a switch or something?”

“Ernestine, ask one of the tour guides.”

“I have to leave and he’s still talking.” She pulls at the headphone, “Damm it, he never could shut up.”

Ernestine let the headphones fall and walked out … he was still talking.

That is not the kind of conversation that goes on in conventional museums — only at ours.

The museum is also a focal point for awards; even those awards are egalitarian. When I was there last, a scholarship award was given for entrepreneurship. It was based on a great idea and a business plan as to how to carry it out. The scholarship is open to any young person who has familial ties to Martha’s Vineyard, and/or Island taxpayers’ children and grandchildren. They can submit a business plan to the museum, which will put them into competition for 2020. 

I have found that the key thing to success, in business or anything, is having someone believe in you. Security in your belief is paramount in this shark-infested arena.

So, bravo to Sam Wallace with his go camera concept, bravo to a scholarship that is not linked to academia or past achievements, and most of all, bravo to those who gave me my dream museum.


Abigail McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers of poetry and social issues. She created Renaissance House in memory of her mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, the novelist, both “Island girls.”